HP059: Rwandan Holocaust

HP059: Rwandan Holocaust

The Rwandan Genocide was the slaughter of an estimated 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, mostly carried out by two extremist Hutu militia groups, the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi, during a period of 100 days from April 6th through mid-July 1994.

Hello and welcome to history podcast. Thank you for listening. You can find more information about this podcast at historypodcast.blogspot.com. Today we will give you the final question to the book contest. Where you have a chance to win Left to Tell, the harrowing story of a young woman’s survival of the Rwandan Holocaust. I really enjoyed reading this book and I think that you will as well. But for right now please join me in learning a bit more about the 1994 Rwandan Holocaust.


The genocide in the tiny Central African country of Rwanda was one of the most intensive killing campaigns — possibly the most intensive — in human history. Few people realize, however, that the genocide included a marked gendercidal component; it was predominantly or overwhelmingly Tutsi and moderate Hutu males who were targeted by the perpetrators of the mass slaughter. The gendercidal pattern was also evident in the reprisal killings carried out by the Tutsi-led RPF guerrillas during and after the holocaust.

The background

The roots of Rwanda’s genocide lie in its colonial experience. First occupied and colonized by the Germans (1894-1916), during World War I the country was taken over by the Belgians, who ruled until independence in 1962. Utilizing the classic strategy of “divide and rule,” the Belgians granted preferential status to the Tutsi minority (constituting somewhere between 8 and 14 percent of the population at the time of the 1994 genocide). In pre-colonial Rwanda, the Tutsis had dominated the small Rwandan elite, but ethnic divisions between them and the majority Hutus (at least 85 percent of the population in 1999) were always fluid, and the two populations cannot be considered distinct “tribes.” Nor was inter-communal conflict rife. As Stephen D. Wrage states, “It is often remarked that the violence between Hutus and Tutsis goes back to time immemorial and can never be averted, but Belgian records show that in fact there was a strong sense among Rwandans … of belonging to a Rwandan nation, and that before around 1960, violence [along] ethnic lines was uncommon and mass murder of the sort seen in 1994 was unheard of.” (Wrage, “Genocide in Rwanda: Draft Case Study for Teaching Ethics and International Affairs,” unpublished paper, 2000.)

Whatever communal divisions existed were sharply heightened by Belgian colonial policy. As Gérard Prunier notes, “Using physical characteristics as a guide — the Tutsi were generally tall, thin, and more ‘European’ in their appearance than the shorter, stockier Hutu — the colonizers decided that the Tutsi and the Hutu were two different races. According to the racial theories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tutsi, with their more ‘European’ appearance, were deemed the ‘master race’ … By 1930 Belgium’s Rwandan auxiliaries were almost entirely Tutsi, a status that earned them the durable hatred of the Hutu.” (Prunier, “Rwanda’s Struggle to Recover from Genocide,” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99.) It was also the Belgians who (in 1933) instituted the identity-card system that designated every Rwandan as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa (the last of these is an aboriginal group that in 1990 comprised about 1 percent of the Rwandan population). The identity cards were retained into the post-independence era, and provided crucial assistance to the architects of genocide as they sought to isolate their Tutsi victims.

As Africa moved towards decolonization after World War II, it was the better-educated and more prosperous Tutsis who led the struggle for independence. Accordingly, the Belgians switched their allegiance to the Hutus. Vengeful Hutu elements murdered about 15,000 Tutsis between 1959 and 1962, and more than 100,000 Tutsis fled to neighboring countries, notably Uganda and Burundi. Tutsis remaining in Rwanda were stripped of much of their wealth and status under the regime of Juvénal Habyarimana, installed in 1973. An estimated one million Tutsis fled the country (it is in part this massive outflow that makes the proportion of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 so difficult to determine). After 1986, Tutsis in Uganda formed a guerrilla organization, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which aimed to invade Rwanda and overthrow the Habyarimana regime.

In 1990, the RPF launched its invasion, occupying zones in the northeast of Rwanda. In August 1993, at the Tanzanian town of Arusha, Habyarimana finally accepted an internationally-mediated peace treaty which granted the RPF a share of political power and a military presence in the capital, Kigali. Some 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers (UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda) were dispatched to bolster the accord. “But Hutu extremists in [Habyarimana’s] government did not accept the peace agreement,” writes Prunier. “Some of these extremists, who were high-level government officials and military personnel, had begun devising their own solution to the ‘Tutsi problem’ as early as 1992. Habyarimana’s controversial decision to make peace with the RPF won others over to their side, including opposition leaders. Many of those involved in planning the 1994 genocide saw themselves as patriots, defending their country against outside aggression. Moderate Hutus who supported peace with the RPF also became their targets.” (Prunier, “Rwanda’s Struggle …”) This was the so-called “Hutu Power” movement that organized and supervised the holocaust of April-July 1994.

On April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile as it approached Kigali airport. Responsibility for the assassination has never been confirmed, but the speed with which the genocide was subsequently launched strongly suggests that the Hutu extremists had decided to rid themselves of their accommodating president, and implement a “final solution” to the Tutsi “problem” in Rwanda.

Within 24 hours of Presidents jet being downed, roadblocks sprang up around Kigali, manned by the so-called interahamwe militia (the name means “those who attack together”). Tutsis were separated from Hutus and hacked to death with machetes at roadside (although many taller Hutus were presumed to be Tutsis and were also killed). “Doing murder with a machete is exhausting, so the militias were organized to work in shifts. At the day’s end, the Achilles tendons of unprocessed victims were sometimes cut before the murderers retired to rest, to feast on the victims’ cattle and to drink. Victims who could afford to pay often chose to die from a bullet.” (Wrage, “Genocide in Rwanda.”) Meanwhile, death-squads working from carefully-prepared lists went from neighborhood to neighborhood in Kigali. They murdered not only Tutsis but moderate Hutus, including the prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana. The prime minister was guarded by a detachment of Belgian soldiers; these were arrested, disarmed, tortured, and murdered, prompting Belgium — as intended — to withdraw the remainder of its U.N. troops from Rwanda.

With breathtaking speed, the genocide expanded from Kigali to the countryside. Government radio encouraged Tutsis to congregate at churches, schools, and stadiums, pledging that these would serve as places of refuge. Thus gathered, the helpless civilians could be more easily targeted — although many miraculously managed to resist with only sticks and stones for days or even weeks, until the forces of the Rwandan army and presidential guard were brought in to exterminate them with machine-guns and grenades. By April 21 — that is, in just two weeks — perhaps a quarter of a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been slaughtered. Together with the mass murder of Soviet prisoners-of-war during World War II, it was the most concentrated act of genocide in human history: “the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust.” (Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998], p. 3.) (Gérard Prunier provides an even higher estimate: “the daily killing rate was at least five times that of the Nazi death camps.” Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide [Columbia University Press, 1995], p. 261.) By the end of April, according to Human Rights Watch, “the worst massacres had finished … perhaps half of the Tutsi population of Rwanda” had been murdered.

The gender dimension of the killings is one of the least-known and least-investigated aspects of the Rwanda genocide. But an increasing number of sources have acknowledged, with Ronit Lentin, that “Throughout the genocide, it was Tutsi men who were the primary target.” (Lentin, “Introduction: (En)gendering Genocides,” in Lentin, ed., Gender & Catastrophe [Zed Books, 1997], p. 12.) Judy El-Bushra writes that

During the war of 1994, and particularly as a result of the genocidal massacres which precipitated it, it was principally the men of the targeted populations who lost their lives or fled to other countries in fear. … This targeting of men for slaughter was not confined to adults: boys were similarly decimated, raising the possibility that the demographic imbalance will continue for generations. Large numbers of women also lost their lives; however, mutilation and rape were the principal strategies used against women, and these did not necessarily result in death. (Judy El-Bushra, “Transformed Conflict: Some Thoughts on a Gendered Understanding of Conflict Processes,” in Susie Jacobs et al., eds., States of Conflict: Gender, Violence and Resistance [Zed Books, 2000], p. 73.)

The trend had been evident throughout the 1990-94 period, when numerous smaller-scale massacres of Tutsis took place, and when, according to Human Rights Watch and other observers, Tutsi males were targeted almost exclusively, as presumed or “potential” members of the RPF guerrilla force.

There are strong indications that the gendering of the Rwandan genocide evolved between April and June 1994, with adult males targeted almost exclusively before the genocide and predominantly in its early stages, but with more children and women swept up in the later stages. (For somewhat similar trends, see the Armenia and Jewish holocaust case studies.) In a comprehensive 1999 report on the genocide, Alison Des Forges wrote: “In the past Rwandans had not usually killed women in conflicts and at the beginning of the genocide assailants often spared them. When militia had wanted to kill women during an attack in Kigali in late April, for example, Renzaho [a principal leader of the genocide] had intervened to stop it. Killers in Gikongoro told a woman that she was safe because ‘Sex has no ethnic group.’ The number of attacks against women [from mid-May onwards], all at about the same time, indicates that a decision to kill women had been made at the national level and was being implemented in local communities.” (See Human Rights Watch, “Mid-May Slaughter: Women and Children as Victims,” in Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda.)

It must be stressed that if such a new stage of killing can indeed be isolated, this does not mean that women and girls were immune to mass murder until that point. Although the number of women actually killed was substantially lower than the number of murdered men, many women (along with girl children) were massacred from the outset. They were also exposed to a wide range of horrific (if generally non-fatal) abuses.

Rwanda may in fact stand as the paradigmatic example of “genocidal rape,” owing to the fact that many of the Tutsi women who were gang-raped have subsequently tested positive for the HIV virus. According to the UK Guardian, “rape was a weapon of genocide as brutal as the machete.” “I was raped by so many interahamwe and soldiers that I lost count,” said one survivor, Olive Uwera. “I was in hospital for a year afterwards. A few months after my child was born the doctors told me I was HIV-positive.” Tests conducted on the 25,000 Tutsi women members of the Widows of Genocide organization (Avega) showed that “two-thirds were found to be HIV-positive. … Soon there will be tens of thousands of children who have lost their fathers to the machete and their mothers to Aids.” (See Chris McGreal, “A Pearl in Rwanda’s Genocide Horror”, The Guardian [UK], December 5, 2001.

Reprisal killings of Hutus

As soon as the genocide broke out, the Tutsi-led RPF launched a concerted drive on Kigali, crushing Rwandan government resistance and bringing a halt to the genocide in successive areas of the country. RPF forces based in Kigali also took up arms, and succeeded in protecting a large number of residents from the holocaust. On July 4, 1994, Kigali fell to the RPF, and the genocide and “war” finally came to an end on July 18. There followed a massive flight of Hutus to neighboring countries, notably to refugee camps in Zaire, as well as large-scale reprisals against Hutus who were alleged to have participated in the holocaust. Most of these reprisal killings also had strong gendercidal overtones. For example, in the town of Mututu, according to Human Rights Watch (Leave None to Tell the Story):

RPF soldiers asked children to go bring back the adults in their families who were hiding in the fields and bush. On June 10, after several hundred adults had returned, the soldiers directed them to assemble at the commercial center to be transported to a safer location to the east. The RPF reportedly killed a number of young men at the market place late in the afternoon and tied up some of the others. The crowd was directed to set out for the commune, about one hour away by foot. The soldiers reportedly killed some men on the way and threw their bodies in latrines or in a compost heap at a reservoir. In another report from the same area, witnesses said that RPF soldiers and armed civilians gathered men and adolescent boys at the home of a man named Rutekereza and then killed them.

In another case, a witness reported that “I saw the the RPF soldiers bringing bodies in trucks at night and throwing them in toilets at Mwogo, near where they had dug their trenches. They brought men already wounded with their arms tied behind their backs. They brought no women.” Various other incidents cited by the Human Rights Watch investigators attest to the broad gendercidal pattern. In other instances, however, “The [RPF] soldiers killed without regard to age, sex, or ethnic group.” (Human Rights Watch, Leave None to Tell the Story.) The organization cites sources to the effect that between 25,000 and 45,000 Hutus were killed in all, though other estimates are higher.

How many died?

According to Gérard Prunier, “Because of the chaotic nature of the genocide, the total number of people killed has never been systematically assessed, but most experts believe the total was around 800,000 people. This includes about 750,000 Tutsis and approximately 50,000 politically moderate Hutus who did not support the genocide. … Only about 130,000 Tutsis survived the massacres.” Some, though, have taken issue with Prunier’s (and others’) estimates, alleging that the number of Tutsis in Rwanda was lower at the outbreak of the genocide than is generally believed. By these measures, “an estimated 500,000 Rwandan Tutsi were killed, or more than three-quarters of their population. … The number of Hutu killed during the genocide and civil war is even less certain, with estimates ranging from 10,000 to well over 100,000.” (Alan J. Kuperman, “Genocide in Rwanda and the Limits of Humanitarian Military Intervention,” unpublished paper, 2000; see also Kuperman, “Rwanda in Retrospect,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000.)

In February 2002, the Rwandan government released the results of the first major census that sought to establish the number of people killed in the genocide and during its prelude period (1990-94). It found that 1,074,017 people — approximately one-seventh of the total population — were murdered, with Tutsis accounting for 94 percent of the victims. (“More Than One Million Rwandans Killed in 1990’s,” Associated Press dispatch, February 14, 2002.)

The proportion of males among those killed can only be guessed at, but was probably in the vicinity of 75 or 80 percent.

Who was responsible?

The genocidal and gendercidal strategy was conceived and implemented by a small circle of Rwandan government officials, led by the Hutu extremist Theoneste Bagosora, “a retired army Colonel who held the post of acting defense minister on the day Habyarimana was killed. In the hours and days after the assassination, Bagosora apparently orchestrated both the genocide and formation of an interim government to support it.” Another key organizer of the holocaust was Mme. Agathe Habyarimana, wife of the murdered president and one of the very few women who have played a central role in the planning and perpetration of genocide. These leaders were able to exploit the highly-centralized nature of the Rwandan state (probably unparalleled anywhere in the world outside the state-socialist bloc): “The genocide happened not because the state was weak, but on the contrary because it was so totalitarian and strong that it had the capacity to make its subjects obey absolutely any order, including one of mass slaughter.” (Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis, pp. 353-54.)

The generally “low-tech” means by which the killing was carried out — the murderers standardly used machetes or hoes — required the involvement of a large proportion of the Hutu population. “Videotapes of the killings show that three or more killers often hacked on a single victim. Since the organizers wished to implicate as many people in the killing as possible, there may have been many more killers than victims.” (Wrage, “Genocide in Rwanda.”)

[Rwandan] authorities offered tangible incentives to participants. They delivered food, drink, and other intoxicants, parts of military uniforms and small payments in cash to hungry, jobless young men. … Many poor young men responded readily to the promise of rewards. Of the nearly 60 percent of Rwandans under the age of twenty, tens of thousands had little hope of obtaining the land needed to establish their own households or the jobs necessary to provide for a family. Such young men, including many displaced by the war and living in camps near the capital provided many of the early recruits to the Interahamwe, trained in the months before and in the days immediately after the genocide began. (Human Rights Watch, Leave None to Tell the Story.)

Controversy has raged since 1994 over the role of foreign governments and the United Nations in allowing the genocide to proceed. According to Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch,

During the early weeks of slaughter international leaders did not use the word “genocide,” as if avoiding the term could eliminate the obligation to confront the crime. The major international actors — policymakers in Belgium, the U.S., France, and the U.N. — all understood the gravity of the crisis within the first twenty-four hours even if they could not have predicted the massive toll that the slaughter would eventually take. They could have used national troops or UNAMIR or a combined force of both to confront the killers and immediately save lives. By disrupting the killing campaign at its central and most essential point, the foreign soldiers could have disabled it throughout the country. … Major international leaders were ready to collaborate on the common goal of evacuating their own citizens and expatriate employees, but they refused any joint intervention to save Rwandan lives. Instead they focused on issues of immediate importance for their own countries: Belgium on extricating its peacekeepers with a minimum of dishonor; the U.S. on avoiding committing resources to a crisis remote from U.S. concerns; and France on protecting its client and its zone of Francophone influence. Meanwhile most staff at the U.N. were fixed on averting another failure in peacekeeping operations, even at the cost of Rwandan lives. (See Human Rights Watch, “Ignoring Genocide”, in Leave None to Tell the Story.)

On April 7, 2000, the sixth anniversary of the outbreak of the genocide, Belgium’s prime minister apologized for the international community’s failure to intervene. Guy Verhofstadt told a crowd of thousands at the site of Rwanda’s planned memorial to the genocide that “A dramatic combination of negligence, incompetence and hesitation created the conditions for the tragedy.” (Hrvoje Hranjski, “Belgium Apologizes for World’s Inaction During Rwanda Chaos,” Associated Press dispatch, April 8, 2000.)

In the wake of the holocaust, the U.N. established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), based in Arusha, Tanzania. In September 1998, the Tribunal issued its first conviction on charges of genocide, against the former mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba, Jean-Paul Akayesu. As Rudy Brueggemann points out, this marked “the first time ever [that] a suspect was convicted by an international tribunal for the crime of genocide.” A day later, the ICTR sentenced the former Hutu prime minister, Jean Kambanda, to life in prison; he had pled guilty to “genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, complicity in genocide and two charges of crimes against humanity.” A total of thirty-two other Rwandan Hutu officials are currently awaiting trial. However, according to the Public Education Center of The New York Times, “after five years, the Tribunal’s accomplishments are still often overshadowed by its failures. Its operations are slow, unwieldy, and at the worst of times unprofessional, and its own limited mandate conspires with international indifference to undermine its core message.”

In Rwanda itself, some 120,000 people were jailed on allegations of participation in the genocide, and thousands died in the brutal and unsanitary conditions of the jails. As of April 2000, some 2,500 people had been tried, with about 300 of them receiving death sentences.

The scars of the genocide and subsequent reprisals will remain with Rwandans for generations, and may yet provoke another round of mass killing. Prunier writes: “Rwanda’s economy remains badly damaged, with little hope of a quick recovery. There are several reasons for this, including the lack of roads, bridges, and telephone lines. Education is also suffering due to a shortage of schools, educational materials, and teachers, many of whom died in the genocide. … Many Tutsis are increasingly convinced that the only way to ensure their survival is to repress the Hutus. Many Hutus believe they have been proclaimed guilty by association and that no one cares about their sufferings under the current Tutsi-led government. Extremists on both sides retain the belief that the only solution is the annihilation of the other. These groups are preparing for a future struggle, one that could include another wave of mass slaughter.” (Prunier, “Rwanda’s Struggle …”)

listener appreciation segment:

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Send in the questions answers to this months podcast to historypodcast@gmail.com for a chance to win Left To Tell. I am very excited to be able to give away a book to the listeners of this podcast. Please enter by answering the questions. Here is a quick re-cap:

Question: What is the first year Michelle mentions as a stock market crash?

Question: When did Patton graduate from West Point?

Question: Who introduced todays episode of historypodcast?

Question: Where was Antoni Gaudí born?

And todays question:

Question: Name one of the three ethnic divisions of Rwandan’s mentioned in this episode? Twa, Hutu or Tutsi

send in this questions and their answers which are posted on the website to historypodcast@gmail.com to enter the contest for Left to Tell. A winner will be chosen at random from the submissions. I will email the winner prior to the next episode and will also announce them as the winner on the next episode.

Next months book will be The Brother Bulger by Howie Carr. A gracious gift from Warner Books.

You can contact via email at historypodcast@gmail.com. The website can be found at historypodcast.blogspot.com

Thanks for listening and we will see you next episode.

Question and Answers Re-cap:

1. Question: What is the first year Michelle mentions as a stock market crash?
Answer: 1929

2. Question: When did Patton graduate from West Point?
Answer: June, 11, 1909

3. Question: Who introduced todays episode (57) of historypodcast?
Answer: Lauren

4. Question: Where was Antoni Gaudí born?
Answer: Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain

5. Question: Name one of the three ethnic divisions of Rwandan’s mentioned in this episode?
Answer: Twa, Hutu or Tutsi


This Months Book:

Left To Tell : Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

Next Months Book:

The Brothers Bulger : How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century